Keith Hopper, review of sundry works by Aidan Higgins, in Times Literary Supplement (2 April 2010)

Details: ‘Rory Rides Again: The welcome return of a writer whose work was praised by Beckett and adapted by Pinter, but has been long neglected since’, [review of sundry works by Aidan Higgins], in Times Literary Supplement (2 April 2010), pp.3-4

Works reviewed: Balcony of Europe [rev. edn.] (Dalkey Archive Press 2010), ed. Neil Murphy (Dalkey Archive Press 2010), 425pp.; Darkling Plain: Texts for the Air, ed. by Daniel Jernigan (Dalkey Archive Press 2010), 400pp.; Neil Murphy, ed., Aidan Higgins: The Fragility of Form (Dalkey Archive Press 2010), 300pp.

Aidan Higgins is often regarded as a “writer’s writer”, which is usually code for contrary, experimental and out-of-print. Derek Mahon, writing in the TLS in 2007, called him “an austere and often difficult writer, more than a touch old-fashioned, with an astringency that can stir the bile of whippersnappers”. Annie Proulx, in a review beloved of blurb writers, marvelled at how “the ferocious and dazzling prose of Aidan Higgins, the pure architecture of his sentences, takes the breath out of you”. And Frank O’Connor - whose own work Higgins rather brutally dismissed as “sentimental jingoism” - simply declared that “Higgins is a born writer, in love with language and what language can do”.

Paradoxically, this love of language -along with Higgins’s restless quest for more complex and revealing narrative forms - has not always found favour with critics, some of whom seem to object to the patterned intricacies of his lush and melancholy prose. Roger Garfitt, for instance, writing in 1975, complained about a certain “heaviness of language” that is “altogether too writerly, too hedged with words”. Moreover, Garfitt argued, “Reality is internalised, transmuted by Higgins’s style into some sort of inner world, so that one could often be uncertain whether he is writing about a real or a dream world”. Whatever it says about the creamy density of Higgins’s style, this does seem a slightly churlish complaint. Are dreams not part of our reality? Is fictionalized reality not a kind of dream? Aidan Higgins certainly thinks so, or as his alter ego Fitzy says in Bornholm Night-Ferry (1983): “As to dream (perhaps the only word we cannot put quotation marks around) and ’reality’, whatever that might be, well they are for me one and the same”.

Even among Higgins’s admirers, though, there remains an uneasiness about the imagistic texture of his allusive style, which has been variously described as “modernist”, “post-modernist”, “impressionist”, “expressionist”, “surrealist”, “dadaist”, and “cubist”. John Banville, writing in the TLS in 2004, argued that “Higgins’s abiding characteristics as an artist are of a High Modernist order: obsessive subjectivity, a broad range of allusive references, insistence on formal freedom, a plethora of polyglottal quotations, aristocratic disdain of the audience .... His subjects are the past, family, loves found and lost, the pleasures of sex, the pleasures of drink, the self as artist, and, just the self - has there ever been a more introspective oeuvre than this?” Introspective it is, but for a growing number of writers and critics Higgins remains the direct descendant of Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien, and may even be - in the words of one exuberant TLS reviewer - “a missing link between high modernism and contemporary writing”.

Aidan Higgins, who turned eighty-three last month, was born in Celbridge, Co Kildare, and was educated at Clongowes Wood College. He grew up in Springfield House, a decaying country manor let run to ruin by his dapper but feckless father. This classic “Big House” background subsequently became the site and source of much of Higgins’s writing, beginning with his first short story, “Killachter Meadow”:

Forty-five years before, in the hopeful 1880s, a couple by the name of Kervick bought Springfield House outright .... Two decades later this couple had passed away, unmourned and almost forgotten in their own time, leaving behind as a legacy for four unprepossessing and unmarriageable daughters a seventy-two acre estate so fallen into neglect that it had to be parcelled out as grazing land. Over the years the rockery and vegetable gardens had merged to become, a common wilderness. In the orchard the untrimmed branches sank until list in the dense uprising of grass. Four spinsters grew up there.

”Killachter Meadow” originally appeared in Higgins’s first collection, Felo de Se (”felon of oneself’, an archaic legal term for suicide), which was published by John Calder in 1960 on the recommendation of Samuel Beckett - “a book of high style and considerable morbidity”, Calder later recalled. In a remarkable letter to Higgins (dated April 22, 1958), Beckett commented extensively on the manuscript of “Killachter Meadow”. He begins his critique by tackling some of Higgins’s more extravagant similes - “’reckless as the sibyl of Cumae” .... “incorrigible as murder” - “You want to be careful about that”, Beckett cautions. Higgins also gets ticked off for his poor spelling - “phenominally” instead of phenomenally - and for some errant diction: “portentious” instead of “ortentous. “All unimportant”, writes Beckett, “but they had better be corrected before you send it out.” Then comes the Master’s final judgement on the story’s complex narrative style:

What I have to do now, and it’s not easy, is to try and tell you what it is that spoils the text for me and obscures its great qualities. I think it is, a kind of straining toward depth and inwardness in certain passages ... I simply feel a floundering and a labouring here and above all a falsening of position. I suppose it is too sweeping to say that expression of the within can only be from the within .... The vision is so sensitive and the writing so effective when you stop blazing away at the microcosmic moon that results are likely to be considerable when you get to feel what is a possible prey and within the reach of words (yours) and what is not.

What seems to bother Beckett most is Higgins’s contrapuntal point of view, where the author-narrator sometimes comments on - and often contradicts - what his characters are doing, saying or thinking, for example, the parenthetical intrusion on the drowning of Emily-May Kervick: “Swept towards it by an unbearable wind, courage and endurance (she never had either) ceased to matter”. Ironically, this metafictional flickering between mimetic and dietetic modes is the defining feature of Beckett’s first story, “Dante and the Lobster” (1934), with its famous frame-breaking intruson at the end of the story: “She, lifted the lobster clear of the table. It had about thirty- seconds to live. Well, thought Belacqua, it’s a quick death, God help us all.” To which the author archly retorts: “It is not”. In this context, Beckett may well have been embarrassed by Higgins’s stylistic homage - a brash reminder, perhaps, of the raw urgency of his own early writings. In any case, Beckett concludes his comments on Higgins’s story with some wise words of encouragement: “In you already, with the beginner, there’s the old hand. Work, work, writing for nothing and yourself, don’t make the silly mistake we all make of publishing too soon”.

And write he did. Higgins’s first novel, Langrishe, Go Down - an expansive reworking of “Killachter Meadow” - was published by Calder in 1966 and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize) it was later adapted for a BBC film starring Judi Dench and Jeremy Irons). His second novel, the sprawling and ambitious Balcony of Europe (1972), was runner-up for the Guardian Fiction Prize (although it was never shortlisted for the Booker Prize as some of his [3] publishers would later claim). Higgins’s later novels area mixed bag. Scenes from a Receding Past (1977) is a prequel of sorts to Balcony of Europe, written in the style of the Joycean Küntslerroman; Bornholm Night-Ferry (1983) is a warmly comic epistolary novel charting the adulterous love affair between an Irish writer and a Danish poet; and Lions of the Grunewald (1993), the least successful of his novels, is a picaresque rodomontade about an expatriate Irish writer which too often descends into drowsy self-parody.

Higgins has also published a range of travel writings including Images of Africa (1971), Ronda Gorge and Other Precipices (1989), and Helsingør Station and Other Departures (1989) and, as George O’Brien has argued, “Travel is not just a feature of the Higgins oeuvre” but rather “a structural principle” on which his entire aesthetic depends. This principle of internal otherness extends to the three volumes of his memoirs Donky’s Years (1995), Dog Days (1998) and The Whole Hog (2000) - which were reissued under the general title A Bestiar. In self-proclaimed “bogus autobiography” Higgins gleefully blurs the boundaries between the fictional and the real (a constant theme throughout his work). Indeed, by the third volume, Higgins conceives of himself as “Rory of the Hills”, a character based on a minor Gaelic rebel at the time of the Elizabethan plantation of Ireland. As the Irish critic Gerry Dukes remarks, “Higgins as Rory of the Hills is a lesser lord of misrule ... a portrait of the artist as an irresponsible but irrepressible pariah”.

Windy Arbours, Higgins’s collected criticism, was published in 2005. Unsurprisingly, unruly Rory is an astute and acerbic critic, with a passion for the knockout punch: Eudora Welty is “A great model for our Irish scribblers bogged down in the mundate”; a Francis Stuart novel. which has just been reissued in a radically scribblers bogged down in the mundane”; a revised edition by Daltrey Archive Press. The Francis Stuart novel “will appeal strongly to Irish readers for it is crammed with familiar lies”; “John Updike’s “John Updike’s fidgety fiction gives grounds me the creeps”. he can be generous too, at least where his literary heroes are concerned: “This is a timely reissue [of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood]. Try it, gentle skimmer. A most curious personalised version of European history ... pâté de foie gras stuffed with cyanide. If there is such a thnk as a modern classic this must be it.”

All of this brings us back to Higgins’s neglected masterpiece, Balcony of Europe, which has just been reissued in a radically revised edition by Dalkey Archive press. The novel was first published by Calder in 1972, but Higgins withdrew it from print on the grounds that it lacked structural coherence: “Balcony of Europe took me eight years. I suffered for it. I thought I’d write a book that I wouldn’t have to invent at all. Whatever happend to me I’d write down.” The original manuscript was nearly a thousand pages long and as John Calder recalled in his memoirs, Pursuit (2001), “We cut [it] down by about a third, reshaped sentences, pruned a book where the fine writing obscured and delayed the story to a more acceptable level, and ironed out the oddities”.

The story is set in an expatriate colony in Andalusia in the early 1960s, and recalls an adulterous love affair between Dan Ruttle, a middle-aged Irish artist, and Charlotte Bayless, a young American housewife: “In dreams you were always moving towards me. And you looked different every time. We had loved each other before we had known each other. We had been unfaithful to each other before we even met”. As the American scholar Morris Beja points out, names take on a symbolic, even mythic, resonance here: Ruttle is both a sexual rutter and stuck in a rut, ensnared in Charlotte’s sensual web; his neglected wife, Livvy Grieve, is grieving for her marriage but will outlast them all (Livvy = Liffey = Life). Charlotte’s nickname, Dilly, is also the name of Dan’s recently deceased mother, although the psychological songlines remain quietly understated. This Joycean doubling extends beyond the lives of the characters and reverberates outwards: Charlotte is Jewish, and her relationship with the deracinated Dan in the Balcón de Europa bar thus becomes “an objective correlative for psycho-cultural conditions central to the European historical experience” (”Questions of Origin”, TLS, 1972).

In this newly reconstituted edition of Balcony of Europe, edited in collaboration with Higgins’s long-time champion Neil Murphy, the opening and closing sections of the original novel - both set in Ireland - have been cut completely, focusing instead on the love affair in Spain. In some ways, this is a pity - the opening scenes in Dublin are among the most tender and poignant in the entire Higgins oeuvre - but overall the revised structure is tighter and more immediately engaging. As Murphy rightly notes in his elegant Afterword, “Balcony of Europe’s reissue is a cause for celebration, and it is a novel whose profound meditations on love and memory are as powerful as ever”. Dalkey Archive Press is to be congratulated for reissuing Higgins’s complete back catalogue, along with a Festschrift of critical essays about his work and a collection of ten previously unpublished radio plays. One of these rediscovered “ear plays”, Winter is Coming (1983), has clear echoes of Balcony of Europe and perfectly embodies the lonely beauty of Higgins’s existential vision:

The silence that now on the terrace falls, and on Atepmoc below in the darkness, is an intimation of the great silence that will one day descend and never lift again. The globe and its wretched burden of history was only a dream, a bad dream only in God’s head, on an off-day long past, now whirled into space, and us with it, back into the nothingness out of which we came.
 Darkness falls like a dark cloak on Atepmoc. Even the dogs are silent.
 Winter is here.

At long last, it seems, the great outsider of modern Irish literature has finally been canonized: Rory of the Hills rides again.

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